Umar (r) said, “There was no single difficulty I faced, or a calamity which struck me, but that I had four bounties bestowed on me by Allah SWT. First that the calamity (or difficulty) was not in my deen. Second that it was not worse than it was. Third that I was not deprived of contentment and surrender to Allah SWT. And fourth that I yearned for the reward from Allah.” This is such as blessing that we have this insight into the inner life and inner thoughts of this beloved companion who so eloquently re-framed any difficulty so that he found within that situation four bounties!
In fact, re-framing is a powerful technique taught in counseling, and this is the technique that Umar (r) used 1500 years ago to feel grateful and to react in a constructive way to any stressful situation. What determines which way a person will feel and react in the face of a stressful situation? Take an everyday example. Consider two men caught in a traffic jam. Let’s say that both of them are late getting to work and both of them have an important meeting at which they are to present a new project proposal to a prospective client. The first man immediately starts to sweat. He tells himself that this is going to be a disaster, the boss is going to come down hard on him and he probably will lose the new account. When he finally gets clear of the traffic jam, he speeds the rest of the way to work, nearly causing an accident. He pulls into his parking space fast and impacts the metal barrier, scratching his front fender. He runs into the office, scowling at the receptionist and yells at his secretary when she tries to tell him about two urgent calls. He gets into the meeting room sweaty, out of breath, apologetic, stumbles as he makes his way to the front of the room. His presentation is weak and without focus or confidence. He loses the account.
Whew! Let’s take a moment to relax after that!
The second man in the traffic jam takes a deep breath, and immediately reminds himself that this problem is beyond his control. He puts on a tape of Qur’anic recitation and repeats more than once out loud that everything is in the hands of Allah, and he will simply do his best once he arrives at work. He calls the office to say that he will be a little bit late. He clears the traffic jam, arrives for the meeting late but composed. He sincerely apologizes to the prospective client and humorously starts his presentation by telling him that he stayed calm despite the traffic jam because he knew that he would have “an uphill battle” to impress the client since he would be late, and therefore had to conserve his energy. The client smiles, everyone relaxes, and he makes an impressive presentation and wins the account.
It all depends upon interpretation and response. The point is that whatever challenges we face, whether something simple like a traffic jam or significant like losing a job, it all depends upon how we interpret the problem, and how we behave in the face of the difficulty, as to whether we will feel calmness or anxiety in the face of the stress. Interestingly, the Latin root of the word anxiety is from anx, the past participle stem of angere, meaning “to torment,” “to strangle.” There is a verse in Qur’an that describes the “path that is steep” (the path to consciousness of Allah SWT, piety, purity of heart, to Paradise, etc.): “And what will explain to you the path that is steep? It is the freeing of the bondman, or the giving of food in a day of privation to the orphan with claims of relationship or to the indigent in the dust. Then will he be of those who believe and enjoin patience, constancy, and self-restraint, and enjoin deeds of kindness and compassion” (Qur’an 90:12-17). What has been translated as “freeing the bondman” is, in Arabic, literally “freeing the neck.” This phrase holds the general meaning of freeing a human being from any sort of bondage. “Freeing the neck” also has a connotation of releasing the neck from strangulation. It is not a stretch to call stress a bondage if one’s response to it is anxiety (torment, strangulation — to strangle is to kill by squeezing the throat in order to compress the windpipe and prevent the intake of air!). “Freeing the neck” from the torment of stress is, on a very fundamental and profound level, what Islam teaches us.